Gutter Opportunities: Boyz in the hood

As a gutter installer, Bill Frazier realized some years ago that “gutter protection was becoming a bigger and bigger part of the gutter business.” Yet the president of Austin Gutterman in Austin, Texas, also faced a dilemma.
On the one hand, Frazier recalls, “There has been such a proliferation of gutter protection products, many of which imitate each other.” The situation grew to the point where, he says, “It’s been really hard for installers to choose a product. And if it’s that difficult for installers, then homeowners must be absolutely bewildered.”
Part of Frazier’s dilemma is that he believed his company had a duty to do more than flip a coin or simply accept manufacturers’ assurances without verification. “Gutter companies that are passionate about and committed to their work,” he explains, “have an obligation to test new products before they offer those products to their customers.”
Ensuring the quality of gutter protection products, however, also serves a profit motive for Austin Gutterman. “The best way to grow your business is through referrals,” advises Frazier, whose company gets 53 percent of its new leads from past customers. “But if you offer products that don’t work well, that will hurt your business because unsatisfied customers won’t give you referrals.”
When Austin Gutterman entered the gutter protection business, it offered foam filter inserts and leaf screens. “But when customers buy gutter protection they have certain expectations about not having to clean their gutters anymore,” Frazier reports. “Since it’s true that filters and screens will eventually need to be cleaned, we would get callbacks. In fact, we’re still getting callbacks regarding those products.”
Austin Gutterman still sells screens, without any warranty, for customers who need leaf protection but cannot afford solid metal gutter hoods. When Frazier and his team sell the screens, they make homeowners aware of the product’s limitations. “Debris can get through or stick onto the screen,” he explains, “and in our area we have live oaks whose leaves have small stems. We found the stems would get stuck in the screens and in the foam filters. Then, as the stems and leaves got caught, other debris would start to collect.”
For all these reasons, Frazier made the decision to go with solid metal gutter hoods. But which one? With dozens or possibly hundreds of products on the market, he decided to do some testing of his own. “When we would install a gutter system,” he recalls, “we would sometimes offer to give the customer a gutter protection product for free, though without any warranty, and explain that we were doing a test.”

Passing the Test
In Austin, the season when gutter protection is most needed occurs in the spring as the city’s live oaks shed their old leaves. In other parts of the country, of course, autumn is the time when the leaves begin to fall. Either way, suggests Frazier, “If you put up a gutter protection product and watch it for about three months, you can pretty much tell how they work.”
During his product testing Frazier learned what he believed are vital lessons about choosing between one gutter hood product and another. “First of all,” he recounts, “hoods are superior to filters or screens. The principal of liquid adhesion, that water is attracted to metal, means that water rolls around the hood and into the gutter, while leaves and debris roll off. Also, we like to believe ‘wind is our friend’ with gutter hoods. Since debris isn’t stuck inside the mesh or a sponge, then it really does blow off in a wind.”
Next, Frazier counsels installers to choose gutter hood products with superior finishes. “Acrylic paint may work fine with aluminum gutters,” he notes, “but whereas a gutter is vertical toward the sun, a gutter hood is horizontal to the sun and gets the full exposure. Acrylic paints aren’t made for that kind of exposure and, especially in Southern states, start quickly to deteriorate and chalk.” For that reason, installers who roll form gutter hoods out of standard gutter coil may experience problems. “When the finish starts to chalk, the stuff can stick to it,” he says.
After testing many gutter hood products Frazier believes the “nose-forward” design is preferable to the “nose-back” configuration. “It’s far superior,” he contends, “because the water rolls around the hood and under the front lip into the water slot, while leaves and debris simply roll off the front.” He acknowledges that gutter installers can choose from a number of viable gutter hood products. Yet in the end, Austin Gutterman opted to become a Gutter Helmet distributor.
Finally, Frazier made his choice because he felt his company would prosper best with gutter hoods that can be added onto an existing gutter system, rather than an all-in-one product that requires replacement of the existing gutters. The decision was dictated by the fact that Austin Gutterman installs a large variety of standard and specialty gutters, so the company enjoys more flexibility by selling gutter protection as an add-on service.
“But no matter how good the gutter cover you select,” Frazier counsels, “it won’t work properly if it’s installed on an existing gutter system that needs rehabilitation.” For that reason, when Austin Gutterman’s sales representatives call on prospects who have inquired about gutter protection, they also inspect the existing gutters. “We can then inform our customers of their need to rehab or replace their gutters, give them an estimate, and provide them with a range of good solutions,” he says.

Having the Answers
Critics of solid-metal gutter hoods contend the products are more expensive than filters or screens, which can limit their marketability, and take longer to install so gutter companies do fewer homes per day. Detractors also point out that many gutter hood manufacturers require local companies to buy franchises and pay franchise fees that cut into profit margins. Makers of competing products likewise suggest gutter hoods sit above the gutter and are unattractively visible from the street, while the open water slot admits leaves and debris.
Not surprisingly, manufacturers of gutter hoods have answers to these criticisms.
At the most basic level, “all gutter protection products are governed by the same two laws of physics, gravity and surface adhesion,” explains president Charles Knight of Absolute Gutter Protection, Woodbury, N.J., the makers of Gutter ProTech. “With any product that’s open to the vertical entry of rain and debris, the law of gravity will eventually win and the product will get clogged,” he contends. “So I tell customers to put products, such as screens and foam filters, which have vertical openings in one category. Then they can put gutter hoods, which have no vertical opening, in a different category.”
According to Knight, gravity will plug any screen or filter over time because debris enters the product vertically and directly. But with gutter hoods, he counters, “Nothing falls vertically into the hood. Leaves and debris can’t fall directly into the product but can only follow the rain as it washes down the roof and over the gutter hood.” Then the law of surface adhesion takes over by which water curves around the lip and into the gutter, while leaves are jettisoned off.
“The one hitch might be with a hard rain or heavy flow due to a large roof or valley,” suggests Knight. “In that case, surface adhesion can also draw leaves and pine needles around the nose and, along with the rain, into the gutter.” Gutter ProTech has addressed the problem by including two rows of “offset filtering louvers” along the vertical face of the panel, rather than leaving a continuous opening along the front nose of the hood.
Though Knight admits that Gutter ProTech is priced as a top-of-the-line product, he refutes the argument that cost is limiting factor in the marketability of gutter hoods. At an average cost to the homeowner of $2,000 to $3,000, he says, “That’s not pocket change, but it’s still low enough for people who want a solution to their gutter problem. Also, it’s less than the $5,000 a homeowner would spend to fix damaged gutters, and less than your medical bills if you fall off the roof trying to clean your gutters.”
Knight likewise acknowledges, “Our product isn’t something you can just put up quick and easy.” But he points out that installers who sell gutter hoods can furnish a long-lasting product that “provides your customers a solution that really works, so that you don’t spend a lot of time dealing with call-backs.” In business since 1997, Gutter ProTech has found its primary market “isn’t just luxury homes, but people who are willing to do what it takes to solve their gutter problem,” he says.
Another consideration in comparing the cost of gutter hoods to screens and filters, Knight continues, is the cost of gaining or losing referrals. “When I talk to installers,” he explains, “some companies tell me it costs them $350 to generate a lead, while others put their cost at $35. What’s the difference? If you sell products that work and your customers are satisfied, they’ll give you referrals. But if you sell cheap products that don’t work, you won’t get referrals.”
For a long time, Knight says, “I resisted the concept of selling Gutter ProTech through dealerships.” But when installers bought the product and then turned around and resold it under different names, Knight knew he had to protect his investment. “It’s very important that gutter protection products be installed correctly,” he notes, “and so we needed to make sure that installers who sold our products had the right mindset.”
Where the mindset of many gutter companies is to simply underbid the competition, Knight points out, he wanted Gutter ProTech dealers “whose attitude is to provide service, solve problems, and be in business for the long haul. Believe me, there’s enough margin in gutter hoods so that, if you sell the solution rather than the price, you can make a good profit.”

Integrated vs. Add-On
At K-Guard LLC of Columbus, Ohio, general manager Rick Mannino also has answers to the questions people ask about solid-metal gutter hoods. To those who question the wisdom of an integrated product that provides an all-in-one gutter system and protective cover, he says, “Our product isn’t just an add-on to an existing gutter, because when homeowners inquire about gutter problems then, in two out of three estimates we do, they need a replacement system anyway.”
Yet another benefit of an all-in-one integrated product such as K-Guard, Mannino continues, is the aesthetic advantage. “Because the gutter system and hood are integrated,” he points out, “they’re designed to complement each other. We’ve designed our own product as a complete system that softens the contours of your house and is pleasing to the eye. Architects tell us they have clients who have requested our integrated solution because it softens the contours.”
If some homeowners worry an all-in-one integrated product means taking down the whole gutter system should a cleaning ever be needed, Mannino says that K-Guard has also foreseen that objection. “It’s true that no gutter protection system will keep out all leaves and debris, all the time,” he acknowledges. “But our gutter hood is very effective to begin with, since it’s based on liquid adhesion or the idea that water bends but leaves don’t bend.”
The K-Guard system employs 3×4-inch downspouts, and can accommodate larger downspouts, “that can take care of debris which does enter the gutter,” continues Mannino. Last of all, the hood is designed as a flip-top that can be flipped up “in case you have a big storm and a branch gets wedged in the water slot.” He adds that the flip-top is rated to stay in place even in gale-force winds.
To the charge that gutter hoods require more installation time than screens or filters, Mannino counters K-Guard can be installed on a 3,000-square foot home in less than five hours by a two-man crew. Yet even if competing gutter protection products tout ease of installation, he warns, “That doesn’t make much difference if the other products don’t work. Filters trap water that can lead to ice damming. And I’ve got neighbors who installed gutter screens and still need to clean them once a year.”

A Consistent Gap
Chandler White, president of Gutter Pro USA in Hickory, N.C., seconds the argument that foam filters and screens “have holes in the them, will clog, and aren’t a permanent solution for gutter protection.” He likewise concurs that, in answer to those who suggest that solid-metal gutter hoods are expensive to buy and laborious to install, the real key to profits lies in the right approach to sales. “You need to present the product, not present the price,” he counsels, “because if you sell a real solution to people’s gutter problems then you can make a good profit.”
Becoming a dealer for a legitimate gutter hood product, White continues, should be viewed as an asset rather than a liability. “We provide marketing and advertising support, give you training in sales and installation, and show you how to generate leads and close the sale,” he explains. “During the training phase our representative will even go with you on sales calls. If you choose a gutter protection manufacturer that supports you, then that will help your profits rather than hinder them.”
White’s company makes Gutter Pro and LeafSlugger, and he believes his product line answers many questions posed by gutter hood critics. Up to 125 feet can be installed in 75 minutes, he reports, and the installed product is low in profile and designed to look from the street like attractive crown molding. “There are perhaps 200 to 300 gutter hood products on the market today,” he notes, “and so, as an installer, you’ve got to do your homework and choose a quality product for your customers.”
That gutter companies can earn high profit margins by selling gutter hoods, but without gouging their customers, is affirmed by Jim Ealer Jr., national sales manager for Midwest Enterprises of St. Clair, Mo. “At $15 to $20 per foot, some companies are overcharging,” he contends, “but even without doing that, you can still get higher margins on solid gutter hoods than on other gutter protection products.”
Midwest Enterprises manufacturers the “E Z” product line that includes the E Z Lock gutter screen, which Ealer believes can be a good choice to help gutter companies reach younger home-owners and others who need a highly affordable option. But in 2005 the company debuted its E Z Solid nose-forward gutter hood, and then last spring introduced the E Z Leaf Sweep reverse-louvered gutter protection system.
“The key to solid covers,” Ealer maintains, “is the consistency of the gap between the cover and the gutter.” He estimates that 80 to 90 percent of gutter hoods on the market require the installer to set the gap, which provides the slot into which rainwater flows. If the gap is too wide then leaves and debris can enter the gutter, and if the gap is too narrow then the water flow is inhibited. Further, the optimum size of the gap can vary according to the pitch of the roof. Midwest Enterprises has addressed the problem by incorporating a measuring gauge into the hood’s installation clips.
Ealer has several observations he believes gutter companies should consider in evaluating different solid metal gutter hood products. First, does the height of the hood above the gutter require the hood to be attached by breaking the seal between the first and second row of roof shingles? He says because E Z products only go an inch higher than the gutter, breaking the seal is not necessary. “I’ve seen some hoods though that extend up 1-1/2 or 2 inches,” he observes.
Second, Ealer notes roof valleys can present problems for gutter hoods. Since the hoods are solid, the concentrated force of water running off a valley can cause the water to shoot over the gutter system. Valleys also can concentrate debris on a given section of a gutter. He recommends water diverters be carefully installed on valleys to prevent any problems. Third, Ealer counsels gutter companies to choose a manufacturer whose solid metal hoods come in enough colors “so you can either match the color of the existing gutter or the color of the roof.”
Finally, Ealer observes that even though gutter hoods may all work according to the same principle of surface adhesion, different products have different curvatures. Midwest Enterprises tested 27 different curvatures in the front lip around which rainwater must flow into the water slot. He suggests installers also perform their own tests to see how various gutter hood products perform.
“There are hoods being sold that may not be engineered for best performance,” Ealer cautions, “but they’re advertised on television and consumers accept what they see on TV. So when gutter companies install them, customers eventually call back and complain. That’s left a lot of installers afraid of gutter hoods. The answer is for you to make sure the gap is right so that the water doesn’t just fly off.”

Forward and Back
President Ken Rutter of LeavesOut Inc. in Etowah, N.C., has been making gutter hoods for 17 years and agrees, “The major issue occurs when the gap is too wide.” For that reason, and though acknowledging, “most gutter hoods feature the nose-forward design,” he has found that his company’s nose-back configuration performs well when the gap is properly set. The design also gives LeavesOut a low profile that provides two benefits: The hood is not significantly visible from the street and the product need not be nailed or screwed to the roof, so any roof warranty is not voided.
To address the concern that solid metal gutter hoods are too expensive, Rutter says, “We’ve kept our manufacturing as simple and basic as possible.” Though he concedes hoods are typically priced higher than filters and screens, LeavesOut has wrung out enough costs of its manufacturing processes “so our product is actually lower in price than some foam filters and mesh screens,” he explains.
Compared to “some other gutter covers that are installed at $16 or $20, or even $50, per foot,” Rutter contends, “we have dealers who can install our product at $7 to $9 per foot and still make a healthy profit.” As for installation speed, he says LeavesOut is designed so a two-man crew can install up to 600 feet per day, which Rutter asserts is twice the rate of some other gutter hoods. Why the difference? “As an installer, you should consider the weight of the hood,” he advises. “Our product isn’t as heavy as some others, though it handles snow loads just fine.”
Nevertheless, Rutter agrees “it’s important to have trained installers, because it does require a bit more skill to miter the corners of a solid gutter hood” than it does to cut a foam filter or gutter screen to the desired size or angle. Yet he concurs with other hood manufacturers who assert “filters and screens will get plugged up with debris in a year or two.” Even fine stainless steel mesh, he says, “will hold debris.” And since foam filters sit in the gutter trough, he observes, “The lip of the gutter is slightly higher than the filter, so organic material will just lodge there on the top of the foam.”
Some cautions about gutter hoods, however, are also in order. “Roof valleys are the biggest challenge, and so we use a deflector that disperses the water rather than just diverts it into two streams,” Rutter explains. Finally, he says, it all goes back to the gap for the water slot. “It’s not true to say that nothing will ever get into your gutter,” he relates, “but because we’ve been in business for a long time, we understand the gap issue and what it takes for gutter protection to work properly.”
At Van Mark Products Corporation of Farmington Hills, Mich., sales manager Bryan Brillhart says the company is offering a new twist on the gutter hood business. Profit margins on gutter protection are showing signs of starting to erode, he believes, and that can be a problem “when installers have to buy a franchise to sell gutter hoods and pay franchise fees.” Moreover, if a territory is taken then other local installers may be left out in the cold.
“You can buy a gutter screen for $1 a foot and then turn around and sell it to homeowners for $4,” Brillhart continues. “But with gutter hoods, though they’ll cost you maybe $1.75 per foot, you can up-sell them for up to $8 a foot, sometimes even $15 or more.” The higher profit margins per foot are certainly attractive, and yet franchise fees and related costs can eat substantially into those margins.
Van Mark has introduced Trim-A-Gutter as a portable machine “that lets you produce a gutter cover at the jobsite,” explains art director Matthew Damron. “All houses are different. So if you’ve got to use pre-formed gutter hoods, you’ll be limited on colors available for matching the existing gutter or the roof. Making your own hoods onsite allows you to customize your job to the homeowner’s needs.”
The Van Mark machine is priced at around $1,000 and makes add-on gutter hoods, rather than all-in-one gutters with integrated covers. Further, continues Brillhart, his company’s hoods are designed to “keep out the large leaves, which cause all the clogging. Roof granules and small leaves are flushed away. It’s only when large leaves stack and laminate, and hold moisture, they start attracting small debris and make compost.”
Foam filters do not provide a solution, Brillhart adds, “because they’re porous and at some point get clogged, and then ice and snow and small particles will break the filter material down.” As for the argument that filters and screens are less visible than hoods from the street, he turns the argument around and observes, “There are a lot of women who don’t like to look out their second-floor windows and see ugly screens or plastic foams in their gutters.”
Given the high consumer awareness of gutter protection, Brillhart sees a substantial market for installers “and yet if the cost of gutter hoods is $3,000 to $4,000 per house, then you’re limited to marketing your service to the upper middle class.” He sees the ability to roll form gutter hoods from a portable machine as “taking some of the costs out of the product, so you can pass them along to homeowners and expand your sales beyond just the high end of the market.”
Brillhart offers another reason for gutter installers to consider producing their own hood products. He predicts a coming shakeout among the dozens of gutter hood manufacturers on the market today and reports, “We’ve already seen the number of companies go down a little bit. It costs $10,000 or $20,000 for a company to take two men to a trade show. Start-up companies that sold gutter hoods directly to installers have already fizzled.” With large numbers of gutter protection manufacturers on the bubble, he says, “Installers need to take their destiny in their own hands.”

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